Easter Sunday in the Stacks
Still shaking off our convention colds and dealing with other issues, so it’s capsule reviews this week. These are some books of note that have crossed my path in the last month or so. Some comics, some merely comics-adjacent…. and one that I’m certain found its way to me by mistake but that I liked enough to recommend here.
Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Maximum by Forrest J. Ackerman, Archie Goodwin, Tom Sutton, Jose Gonzalez et al.
The blurb: A collection of Vampirella stories from the original Vampirella #1-37, including nearly every Vampirella story written by Archie Goodwin and rendered by Jose Gonzalez!
What I Thought: I’ve always loved Hammer horror movies, especially the Dracula ones, and I was a huge fan of Marvel’s black-and-white horror comics… but somehow Warren’s line of horror-themed magazine comics were never really on my radar back in the day. It wasn’t until I was old enough to recognize creator names and realized that many of my bronze-age favorites from Marvel and DC had also worked for Warren that I got interested in the Warren output… but by then the line was long gone.
But the good news is that today we live in a world where seventies comics– an enormous number of them– are routinely being reprinted in book form. Even so, I’d have probably skipped Vampirella, for the same reason that fans of naval adventure never seriously consider Baywatch; I considered it strictly a good-girl-art comic, not anything for someone genuinely interested in vampire stories. But then I saw that Archie Goodwin, the man responsible for my favorite comics run of all time, was writing it for quite a while, and as luck would have it, I ran across this Harris Comics collection — it’s the equivalent of an Essential or a Showcase, featuring the first 37 issues of Vampirella stories– for a ridiculously low price. So I made an impulse buy.
And I’m really glad, because once you get past the excruciatingly bad origin story from Forry Ackerman and Tom Sutton, it turns into something pretty good. Goodwin came on board almost immediately afterward and made a number of desperately-needed fixes. He made it a point to make the stories actual stories and not just gigglingly naughty pun-fests, he gave Vampi a quest, interesting adversaries, and a supporting cast; and early on he was joined by artist Jose Gonzalez, whose work lifted the entire venture a couple of levels higher just with its sheer gorgeousness.
Certainly he was doing “good girl art,” Gonzalez knew what was paying the bills. But more than that, he was just doing good art. He put every bit as much into the landscapes and the architecture and the supporting players as he did into the hot girl headliner.
Goodwin also put a new spin on the Dracula mythology that I liked a lot, incorporating both Dracula himself and also the Van Helsing family as supporting players.
I was disappointed to find that Harris had only done the one volume. I found myself wanting more, even after Goodwin had given up the scripting duties to others. Dynamite has been doing hardcover archive editions but those are a little too rich for my blood– I’m interested in reading more of these, but not to the point of spending that kind of money. (Though they look like very handsome books, and the archive hardcovers reprint the entire content of each magazine, not just the Vampirella stories.) However, Dynamite is also re-releasing this particular collection, with a much better cover, under the name The Essential Warren Years, and I’m hoping that does well enough to get a volume two.
Life with a Superhero by Kathryn U. Hulings.
The blurb: This powerful, funny and heartwarming story begins over twenty years ago in a small Israeli town, where a desperate mother told a remarkable lie. She told her friends and family that her newborn child had died. That lie became the catalyst for the unfolding truth of the adoption of that same baby—Michael —who is, in fact, very much alive and now twenty-two years old. He also has Down Syndrome.
When Kathryn Hulings adopted Michael as an infant, she could not have known that he would save her life when she became gravely ill and was left forever physically compromised. Her story delights in how Michael’s life and hers, while both marked by difference and challenge, are forever intertwined in celebration and laughter. With candor and a sense of humor, LIFE WITH A SUPERHERO wraps itself around the raucous joy of Michael’s existence with his four older siblings who play hard and love big; how Kathryn and her husband, Jim, utilize unconventional techniques in raising kids; the romance between Michael and his fiancée, Casey; the power of dance in Michael’s life as an equalizing and enthralling force; the staggering potential and creativity of those who are differently-abled; and the mind-blowing politics of how Kathryn navigated school systems and societal attitudes that at times fought to keep Michael excluded from the lives of kids deemed “normal.”
What I Thought: Honestly, when I got the note from the publicist offering to send me this book, I thought it was some sort of mistake. Google had clearly led him astray– I write about comic book superheroes and pulp fiction, for crying out loud, and the fact that a book has “Superhero” in the title doesn’t automatically put it in my wheelhouse. But I decided to say okay, send it along, because I thought Julie would be interested, and also because I often have to work with special-needs kids who get parked in my cartooning classes by desperate administrative types because “it’s just drawing, they can draw.”
And you know what? It’s really the hell of a book.
What I liked about it is mostly the same thing I like when our own Greg Burgas writes about his special-needs daughter: Like Greg, Kathryn Hulings is brutally objective about the challenges raising Michael presented, but the story is always tempered with affection and humor. She is completely honest about what an incredible pain it can sometimes be to be constantly on alert, all the time, as a parent. It’s obvious she loves Michael and understands that he needed more from his family than ‘normal’ children would, but the harsh reality is that every so often the burden of it can be crushing. The fact that her narrative doesn’t flinch from acknowledging that, or admitting that it sometimes made her act like a bitch to people, made me like her quite a bit.
The other thing I appreciated about it was that Mrs. Hulings waited until her children were adults before publishing her memoir, and talked through all these things with them first; this is a courtesy that many of the kids that star in such stories are not afforded. (Looking at you, Gosselins.)
As for Michael himself, I couldn’t help but be won over by a kid that loves superheroes and fantastic fiction as much as I do.
I remember what a refuge it was for ME, when I was a kid, and in my years teaching I’ve seen what an incredible thing it can be for special-needs children to find the arts. Michael ended up being a dancer instead of a cartoonist, but the principle is the same.
Anyway, whether I got on the review list for it by mistake or not, I liked this book a lot and I bet you would too, especially if you have kids of your own.
Life’s Lottery by Kim Newman.
The blurb: A role-playing novel that reveals how small decisions can have monumental consequences. If you choose the right possibilities you may live a long happy life, or be immensely rich, or powerful, or win the lottery. If you make other choices you may become a murderer, die young, make every mistake possible, or make no impression on life at all. The choice is yours.
What I Thought: Understand, first of all, that I always loathed Choose Your Own Adventure-type “interactive” books. I considered them largely worthless non-books good for, at most, an hour’s worth of entertainment.
But Kim Newman has accomplished something truly remarkable here. He has written an interactive, role-playing novel that works as a novel and not just a game. You can play with it the same way you would one of the old RPG books, jumping from this page to that– or you can read it straight through as a linear story and it’s just as involving. The reader assumes the role of a man named Keith Marion, and beginning with one playground confrontation in his childhood, the plot branches off into dozens of different possibilities. It becomes a story about making choices and the paths taken or not taken. I was awed at the sheer craft on display in the writing itself, but the story’s really good too. The wildly varying outcomes make the book itself almost impossible to describe, which is a bit of a handicap in writing about it, so I’ll just settle for saying I thought it was brilliant AND hugely entertaining. Recommended unreservedly.
The Art of Ian Miller by Ian Miller and Tom Whyte.
The blurb: Featuring over 300 pieces of artwork spanning decades of Ian’s work, this collection is a treat for all lovers of great fantasy art – from Lovecraft novel covers to Tolkien bestiaries to Warhammer 40,000 concept art, through a veritable trove of gothic humour, fantasy battles, dragons, beasts and a world of nightmarish visions.
What I Thought: These hardcover “Art of” volumes from Titan Books have been very hit-or-miss with me; they are uniformly gorgeous but I often find that the subject is unworthy of the level of high-class layout and design that Titan brings to these coffee-table hardcovers.
Thankfully, Ian Miller is worth it and then some. His work on Wizards, Gormenghast, and dozens of other fantasy properties is legendary; his Warhammer stuff is so amazing it could almost get me to like that game. I’m always a sucker for artist-retrospective books and I’d much rather see a book like this about one guy’s work as a whole than one about one particular movie or game or whatever, which is what Titan had been sending me before. The animated movie of the moment rarely deserves a high-end coffee-table book– but someone with a career as long as Ian Miller’s certainly does.
I’d admired Mr. Miller’s work for a while– the Gormenghast stuff in particular– and reading about it here and seeing so much of it in one place is a treat.
The only real caveat I have is that it’s pretty much just pictures and captions; there’s no index, or even a table of contents. On the one hand, it lends a certain spontaneity to the reading experience– like walking through a gallery– but since the book is broken up into categories like “Dragons” and “Kingdoms” and so forth, it might have been helpful to put the list of those categories up front.
But that’s only a minor kvetch. The book is gorgeous and Miller’s drawings are something you can go back to again and again and find new things every time. At $34.95 it might seem a little spendy for 160 pages, but it’s a hardcover in full color… and frankly you can find it at Amazon for about twenty bucks. So I’ll still say recommended, but, y’know, shop around. In any case, I see that Titan has The Art of John Harris on deck, which is welcome news. Certainly, it’s preferable to the overproduced stuff they were sending me last year like The Art of The Croods. I’d much rather they keep going in this direction. If you’re going to do gorgeously-made art hardcovers, Titan, feature more artists of note and fewer movies that are forgotten within a month of release.
And that’s all I’ve got this time around. Hope you all have a great holiday– whether it’s Easter, or perhaps the other ganja-centric one.
However, more important in this household than either of those is the fact that it’s John Ostrander‘s birthday. Let’s celebrate by pre-ordering the new Spectre collection.
Because nothing says “happy birthday” to a writer like buying his books. Honest.
As for me, I’m planning on returning to the to-be-read pile. See you next week.